Time for Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote to rank the NFL's 32 teams (in order to annoy fans of 31 of them), and your Dolphins would be much higher on the list if it were based solely on the motivation derived from being overlooked, disrespected and all of those other things athletes take as personal insults and use as fuel. Think about it. Miami is the defending AFC East champion but enters the new season quietly as a division afterthought, overshadowed nationally by the return of the mighty Tom Brady in New England, by the noisy landing of Terrell Owens in Buffalo and by the red-carpet arrival of Mark Sanchez in New York. The poor Dolphins are consigned a Las Vegas betting line over/under of eight victories, meaning the forecast is a team cascading from an 11-5 playoff season to a spot on the couch come the postseason, TV remote in hand. Is the outlook unjustifiably dire? Let's take a few months to answer that. For now, one man's pecking order for NFL '09:
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Fathom that the Pats were 11-5 and led the AFC East in scoring last season with a quarterback, Matt Cassel, who had not started a game since high school. Now they get terrific Tom Brady back, one of the best in league history, an instant betting favorite to win league MVP. Oh, almost forgot. New England also led the AFC East in scoring defense last year, and this year's defense looks younger and better. If Brady stays healthy -- the "if" that has all of Boston walking on clamshells, er, eggshells -- a fourth Super Bowl ring in nine years seems somewhere between plausible and probable.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
When last the Steelers began a season as the defending champion, in 2006, they fizzled to an 8-8 record after Ben Roethlisberger's serious offseason motorcycle accident. Now, Big Ben enters play with another off-field issue, a discredited but nevertheless nettlesome rape allegation. Foreboding? Omen for another Super letdown? Nah. Roethlisberger, with two rings at 26, is poised for a big year if his so-so line keeps him upright, with the best defense in football for support.
3. NEW YORK GIANTS
The Biggies have the best defensive front seven in football, augmented on the other side of the line by a rock-solid ground game and a newly enriched Eli Manning being paid to perform like a superstar. The issue for the Giants in the merciless NFC East is that they ended last season on a 1-4 skid without receiver Plaxico Burress, who is now departed and unreplaced. If Eli had a reliable target or two, this team would be scary.
4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Donovan McNabb has a new contract to foment a happy mood, has a rebuilt offensive line and a defense that ranked third in the NFL last year. But caveats abound. They include playing in the sport's toughest division, the death of immensely respected defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the ongoing Cirque de Distraction of signing Michael Vick and the fact Brian Westbrook, coming back from ankle surgery, has slipped from his days as a fantasy-football darling.
5. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
No more Tony Dungy, no more Marvin Harrison, no more 12-victory seasons seeming as automatic as autumn turning to winter. Plenty more Peyton Manning, though, and that alone makes whispers of the Colts' demise seem premature, if not downright slanderous. The Colts don't figure to reprise their 2006 championship from a tough AFC, but this still looks like a playoff qualifier.
6. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
The depth-rich Chargers are about as certain as any team to reach the postseason, if only because the AFC West crumbles to ineptitude beneath them, offsetting an otherwise tough road schedule. The big question: Will running star LaDainian Tomlinson, 30, be able to revisit his fantasy-king peak after two injury-marred seasons, or has he begun the gradual slide to Larry Johnsonville? Big Question II: Will defensive force Shawne Merriman prove he has recovered from reconstructive knee surgery?
7. TENNESSEE TITANS
A strong offensive line plowing paths for Chris Johnson and LenDale White gives the Titans a fundamental strength that allows Kerry Collins to be a caretaker-type quarterback. Last season's No. 2 scoring defense lost tackle Albert Haynesworth to free agency, but has plenty left. The Titans won't duplicate 2008's overreaching 13-3 record, but look again like a top-six conference team.
8. ATLANTA FALCONS
Emerging young quarterback Matt Ryan, fantasy-stud running back Michael Turner, re-signed Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and newly added future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez give the Falcons plenty of weapons on the scoring end. The trouble is, they face a tough schedule with a suspect defense, especially against the pass.
9. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Yeah, I know. Larry Fitzgerald. Fine. But still expect a sizable dropoff from last year's Super Bowl losers, who remember were only 9-7 despite all of those weapons in the passing game. Relying heavily on rookie running back Beanie Wells might be almost as risky as thinking Kurt Warner isn't due to start showing his age.
10. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Second-year pro Joe Flacco looks like a franchise quarterback, the unretirement of receiver Derrick Mason is a boost and a strong line forges a solid ground game for a team good enough to oust Tennessee and Miami from last year's playoffs. Defensively, Ray Lewis is aging but is surrounded by too much talent to let the departure of coordinator Rex Ryan deter it.
11. DALLAS COWBOYS
The Cowboys' new $1.2 billion playpen increases the pressure on coach Wade Phillips, and on quarterback Tony Romo to prove he can win late in the season and end Dallas' embarrassing 12-year streak without a playoff victory. A solid, deep ground attack eases the burden on Romo somewhat, and the departure of Terrell Owens alleviates some of the circus, but the Cowboys still must shake the underachiever label.
12. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Brett Favre hauling himself out retirement -- again! -- sent a small earthquake across the NFL (well, across the Twin Cities and Green Bay, anyway), but Minnesota hasn't stopped being a team that will run Adrian Peterson. Then again, the threat of Favre gunslinging to Bernard Berrian and rookie Percy Harvin can't help but open up even more legroom for Peterson.
13. CAROLINA PANTHERS
The Panthers return 20 of 22 starters (including re-signed sack man Julius Peppers) to a team that went 12-4. So why the long faces? Could be the league's second-toughest schedule. Could be because Carolina in its brief history (since 1995) has never had consecutive winning seasons. More likely it's because a solid ground game won't carry the Panthers far enough if they don't see an improved defense and better quarterback play from a perhaps fading Jake Delhomme.
14. GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Pack should be better than last year's 6-10 record if Aaron Rodgers continues to look like a quarterback moving toward elite status, and if Ryan Grant has a healthy, bounce-back season carrying the pigskin. Green Bay should be better, especially because it has overhauled and improved its defense, switching to a 3-4 under new coordinator Dom Capers.
15. CHICAGO BEARS
The Bears face the NFL's easiest (on paper) schedule, are fortified by the trade for quarterback Jay Cutler and have a young, solid runner in Matt Forte. Then the questions start. The offensive line is shaky, Cutler has too few proven targets and the defense surrounding Brian Urlacher has injury issues and isn't the force it was a few years ago.
16. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Miami could be as good as last year's Cinderellas and still struggle to make the playoffs. Start with the NFL's toughest schedule against last year's easiest. Add the realistic unlikelihood of Chad Pennington repeating his career year. Factor in the Wildcat not having nearly the same surprise factor. And that's not even getting into the absence of a game-breaking receiver or the need to replace two departed starters in the secondary. Give the Dolphins a wild-card shot, but not a great one.
17. HOUSTON TEXANS
The Texans could be stuck again in Fortune .500, their rut of pretty good but not special. Receiver Andre Johnson is big-time, and running back Steve Slaton is coming off a nice season, but still not totally sold on quarterback Matt Schaub. Defensively, Mario Williams isn't surrounded by many stars, and the secondary is a primary concern.
18. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
If only the aging Saints ranked as high in the NFC as Drew Brees does in the minds of fantasy-league drafters. Brees might get his 4,500 yards, but New Orleans figures to lose some shootouts again because the team's explosiveness on offense is offset by questions on defense.
19. NEW YORK JETS
The Jets have a new coach in loudmouth, fight-picking Rex Ryan following last season's big fade. They should be better on defense, with a couple of nice offseason additions (LB Bart Scott, CB Lito Sheppard), but could struggle as rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez grows into his game and role.
20. BUFFALO BILLS
The Bills need Trent Edwards to prove himself, need a healthy comeback year from Marshawn Lynch, need production and tranquility from Terrell Owens -- good luck on the latter! -- and need a young defense to grow up fast. That's a lot to ask.
21. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
The worst injury problems in the league sank Seattle a year ago. They will improve on a 4-12 record as Jim Mora takes the reins from Mike Holmgren, but too many questions remain. Injury-prone quarterback Matt Hasselbeck won't stay upright for 16 games behind aging left tackle Walter Jones and the running game is suspect.
22. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Quarterback Jason Campbell struggled as last season progressed, running back Clinton Portis seemed to wear down and the offensive line looks like a fright. This is not a good position from which to wage battle in the league's toughest division.
23. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Mike Singletary went 5-2 as coach last year but has his work cut out as he begins his first full season. Uncertainty at quarterback, the camp holdout of top pick Michael Crabtree and the questionable ability of Frank Gore to stay healthy raise questions on offense.
24. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Embattled seventh-year coach Marvin Lewis counts on healthy quarterback Carson Palmer to return to Pro Bowl form and lead the Bengals to respectability. But a rebuilt offensive line and not much of a running game will do Palmer no favors.
25. DENVER BRONCOS
This could be a mess. New coach Josh McDaniels shocked fans by trading quarterback Jay Cutler, leaving Denver apparently relegated to Kyle Orton. Receiver Brandon Marshall whining for a trade festered across training camp. And an aging secondary led the questions on defense.
26. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Little big man Maurice Jones-Drew signed a big contract and is the hub now for the Jaguars, but not enough talent surrounds him. How good is David Garrard? The longer you ask that of a quarterback, the more likely the answer is "not good enough." Looks like a team in rebuilding mode.
27. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs are banking on a stout offensive line leading a solid ground game, but they still figure to take a pretty hard fall from last year's 9-7 record. The defense thoroughly collapsed in last year's season-ending four-game losing streak. And the prospect of Byron Leftwich taking over at quarterback isn't inspiring many chants of "Super Bowl!" by the bay.
28. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
It seems a risk to think Matt Cassel will change everything, going from being surrounded by talent in New England to being surrounded by too little of it here. Another risk: thinking running back Larry Johnson will return to form. But the biggest problem is a defense that ranked 31st last year.
29. OAKLAND RAIDERS
The Raiders' reputation as the NFL's Dysfunctional Family only grew this month when coach Tom Cable blindside-punched an assistant. Despite that, a deep ground game (with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, Michael Bush and new fullback Lorenzo Neal) gives Oakland a fighting chance to end its six-season streak of double-digit losses.
30. ST. LOUIS RAMS
New coach Steve Spagnuolo has a mountain to climb. The Rams not only were 2-14 last year but were outscored 465-232. That's a lot of stink to erase in one year.
31. DETROIT LIONS
What can you say about the NFL's first 0-16 team and a franchise that has lost 23 of its past 24 games? How about this: If they go 5-11, Jim Schwartz is getting Coach of the Year votes and rookie quarterback (and presumed starter) Matthew Stafford is being carried on the shoulders of a celebrating city.
32. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson were battling this preseason for the right to take snaps behind an uncertain line and lead an offense that totaled 31 points in the 0-6 run that ended last year -- an offense now minus suspended receiver Donte' Stallworth. Did we mention the Browns' defense is lousy, too?